Social History – Spies and the Middle East proves rich background for films – Zero Dark Thirty carries on tradition.
Early 1900 spies in Middle East- The Director of Military Intelligence (UK), Colonel Sir Francis Wingate, talking to an Arab civilian on leaving a train on the Sudan Military Railway, possibly near Atbara. Colonel Wingate spoke fluent Arabic. The Arab is probably Mohammed Fadl, a Sudanese spy from Dafur who was imprisoned and mutilated by the Khalifa. His right hand and left foot had been amputated as punishment. And we are concerned about water boarding?
So there are no worries that Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden is a political statement.
Bigelow and Mark Boal have made a very focused and harrowing thriller that centers on the real life female CIA agent who was obsessed with catching and killing bin Laden. Jessica Chastain leads a huge cast, and puts herself right into competition with Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook,” for Best Actress in a Drama. And even though it’s a military movie, “Zero Dark Thirty” really stars Chastain and Jennifer Ehle, with the men of the film–played by Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Mark Duplass and Harold Perrineau– taking secondary but important roles.
The most interesting thing right off the bat is that “Zero Dark Thirty” is not political. President Obama makes a brief appearance seen off a TV and it’s not necessarily positive. While American intelligence is water boarding prisoners, Obama is seen saying he doesn’t believe in torture. The whole first fiften minutes of so is taken up with the waterboarding of a prisoner. Once you see it, you’ll be writing to your congressman to prevent it from happening again. But Obama disappears after that. And the CIA and the military take over.If Bigelow and Boal got secret access to the Situation Room from the time Osama bin Laden was killed, you don’t see it.
What you do see is the CIA doing something successful after many botches and tragedies in the war against terrorism. One scene that stands out is a meeting in Washington of the principle CIA players. Mark Strong, who’s great, comes in starts screaming at them there is no “secret” other group working on the problem. They’re it, and they’ve got to produce results.
Initially, with the torture scenes and the introduction of Chastain as Maya, the red haired take no prisoners agent, you do feel like you might be watching “Homeland: The Movie.” But Bigelow is a consummate filmmaker. Her movie grows and flourishes from that point on. Boal’s screenplay isn’t so much about backstory for the characters (there isn’t any) but making them interesting enough to follow through this crusade. It’s to his and Chastain’s credit that Maya gets richer and develops more layers as the film progresses, particularly once Ehle’s very brilliant agent exits the story. (I don’t wan to give too much away.)
So for now: “Zero Dark Thirty” is a likely Best Picture nomination, with kudos to all involved. Chastain and Ehle are the standouts. And there will much discussion of this film as we come through the week…